20 January 2011


UNSTUCK IN TIME. The veterans of each of our country's wars have widely differing experiences upon returning from combat. In part this can be chalked up to shifting military policy. In WWII, for instance, soldiers trained together as a unit, shipped overseas as a unit, and after hostilities ceased, returned home as a unit. Usually the return was by boat, allowing two weeks of decompression and sharing feelings with those who understood them best -- fellow soldiers. Once home, vets were treated as heroes, and enjoyed the generous benefits of the G.I. Bill. As a result, WWII vets were better prepared for re-entry into civilian life.

During the Vietnam War, policy changed. Soldiers trained as individuals, and were sent into the war zone as individuals, often arriving to find themselves regarded with suspicion or condescension as the FNG. Friendships developed tentatively, and always the personnel in a given unit were being cycled in and out as individuals. When I returned from Vietnam in March of 1968, I was transported on a civilian jetliner along with a bunch of strangers, fellow veterans I did not know. Within 24 hours of leaving the war zone, I was set loose on the streets of San Francisco -- no decompression, no counseling, no time for adjustment. The culture shock was tectonic. Vets were treated with derision and hostility, and quickly learned to hide their history and stuff their feelings. During a time of protests and riots, Vietnam vets fell through the cracks.

Now a new generation of veterans is multiplying in our midst. Men and women returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan undergo an odd mix of the re-entry experience of vets from previous wars -- they may return home with their units or individually, with little time in transit, yet there are many more counseling and assistance programs available than was true during Vietnam. Further, many books and movies are being produced about the war experience, allowing us to understand at least a little of what our youngest veterans went through.

In his NYTimes article Pilgrim's Progress, Matt Gallagher describes his post-war life succinctly. "I've walked by manholes in New York City and smelled the sludge river I walked along in North Baghdad in 2008. I've stopped dead in my tracks to watch a street hawker in Manhattan, a large black man with a rolling laugh and a British accent, who looked just like my old scout platoon's interpreter. And I've had every single slamming dumpster lid -- every single damn one -- rip off my fatalistic cloak and reveal me to be, still, a panicked young man desperate not to die because of an unseen I.E.D.

".... Like the veterans who came before and the ones who will come after, I walk the streets of New York City forever the soldier I no longer am .... I still scan crowds for suicide vests, seek out corner vantage points like a bloodhound and value competency in a human being above all else. Jumping back into civilian life headlong, like I originally attempted, proved both disastrous and shortsighted. And coming to terms with this permanent state of combat readiness has made me realize just how much I miss war (or parts of it), and how lucky -- and twisted -- I am to be able to even write those words. I miss the camaraderie. I miss the raw excitement. I miss the Iraqi locals, from the kids who walked our daytime patrols with us to the frightened mothers who just wanted us to go away. I miss the soldiers, the NCOs, and even some of the officers. I miss that daily sense of purpose, survive or die, that simply can't be replicated in everyday existence. I miss standing for something more than myself, even if I never figured out just what the hell that something was supposed to be.

"I don't miss it all, of course. I got out of the Army for some very good reasons. Love. Sanity. Bureaucracy. A Holy Trinity for our time. But there is a messy ambiguity at the core of this that must be conveyed, if not necessarily understood."

In World War I they called it shell shock. In World War II it became known as combat fatigue. In Vietnam and during the time since, it has become a psychological diagnosis, PTSD. Along with the risk of death or disfigurement, it is the price paid by those who endure war in service to their country -- a service that is often insulted by our nation's reasons for instigating war in the first place.

Note: During active duty, Matt Gallagher wrote a popular blog called Kaboom: A Soldier's War Journal. In 2010 his book Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War was published to wide critical acclaim.

JFK. Fifty years ago today, President-elect John F. Kennedy delivered his inaugural address to an enthralled nation. It is arguably one of the most important and riveting speeches in American history, proclaiming a sea change in leadership, in engagement with the world community, and in his passionate call to public service -- "Ask not what your country can do for you -- ask what you can do for your country." You can see and hear Kennedy's entire address here, and read a transcript of his speech here.

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